Issue #9

Winter 2013

Table of Contents

3 Letter from the Editor

4 Contributors

5 Events

6 Essay – “In the Ward” by Chelsey Clammer

11 Fiction – “The Snake and the Shotgun” by Sean-Patrick Burke

17 Review – “1Q84” by Joshua Willey

20 Fiction – “Temporary in a Skin Suit” by Graham Todd

27 Review – “Keeping it Real” by Joshua Willey

32 Fiction – “The Flock” by Thomas Brown

Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

This is where I write something nice about how exciting it is to be introducing our ninth issue, and how I can almost feel the days getting longer, though not as palpably as last year on the shores of Lago de Atitlán, and what an eventful winter it’s been in our little corner of the literary world, and something about what literature and the literary world, the literary life, means to all of us, and either a more professional picture of myself or just a photograph that is representative of the season without being too self-centered, like a blanket and a stack of books, but nothing that implies the way this picture is is the way the world is because this is the only world that matters, because it’s not, and then I’ll write something meant to be inspiring about writing or art or what trans means and what transgressions can be, crimes or boundary crossings or sea life where land life should be, something about exceeding limits or violating some kind of order, and then we’ll do what we do best.  Warmest,

– Christina Phelps



Thomas Brown is the Co-Editor of Dark River Press and a postgraduate student at the University of Southampton, where he is studying for an MA in Creative Writing.  Literary influences include Friedrich Nietzsche, S. T. Joshi, and Russian novelist Andrei Makine.  When not writing or editing he makes coffee for a living, although it is fair to say his passion lies with the pen, and not the portafilter.

Sean-Patrick Burke grew up in Killington, Vermont, graduated from the University of Vermont, and currently lives in Burlington, Connecticut with his wife, Amelia, and their four daughters.  His fiction has previously been published in the Fox Cry Review.  In 2012 he completed a novel and is currently at work on another.  He spends far too much time on Twitter, tweeting as @Sea_Bunker (it’s an anagram).

Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago.  She has been published in THISThe RumpusAtticus ReviewSleet, The Coachella Review, and Make/shift among many others.  She received the Nonfiction Editor’s Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination.  She is currently finishing up a collection of essays about finding the concept of home in the body, as well as a memoir about sexuality and mental illness.  You can read more of her writing at:

Born in a small town in rural North Carolina, Neil Craver quickly became transformed by the arts as a young boy.  Beginning as an abstract painter and figurative sculptor, his motivation grew from his interest in chroma and psychophysical effects of these stimuli acting upon our five known senses.  Photography holds all the intrinsic values of all the other arts but differs in the fact that it’s the foundation of existence.  Nothing can exist without the photon, and every aspect is controlled by its usage.  See more at

Graham Todd is a recent graduate from Stanford University and teaches English literature and writing to K-12 students in the San Francisco Bay area.  In his free time, he writes music reviews for The East Bay Express, a weekly print newspaper based in Oakland, CA.

Joshua Willey was born in Oakland and studied literature at Reed College.  He’s currently training to translate Chinese fiction.  Some of his work can be found in OpiumRain TaxiAdbusters,Wilderness HouseStumble, and Shelf Life.


1.21.2013 – trans lit mag begins transmitting issue #9, “transgressions.”


In the Ward

by Chelsey Clammer

I stare at the bandages on my arms, and I know what it is I am while I am here.  I am the cutter.  That is my identity here, because who I am in the outside world is meaningless in this space of the psych ward.  I am not the academic or the runner or the feminist bookstore employee.  I am not the social justice advocate or the aspiring writer.  I am the cutter.  The people who surround me have their own identities, the ways in which they try to claim themselves in these contained walls that have stripped us of our outside identities.  There is the Michael Jackson schizophrenic, the weight lifter manic, the guy who no one knows his name but he’s the one who constantly paces around in circles in the “quiet room” listening to the heavy metal radio station.  There’s my roommate who I haven’t seen, as she keeps the privacy curtain drawn around her bed all day.  I imagine her as overweight, plummeting the mattress down to the ground.  She’s most likely depressed and suicidal.  And there are the TV watchers who are also depressed, the ones I will not remember because they do nothing in order to unfade themselves from the dull gray paint.

But I am the cutter.  I am the only one with bandages on her arms, the white gauze that holds back my stitches from showing themselves to the world.  This is who we are: psych ward patients trying to claim our identities within the cemented walls.  I stand in the hallway and talk with Michael Jackson as he tells me about how he’s going to make his big comeback.  I wonder if this guy knows that Michael Jackson is dead.  When he wanders off, singing “Man in the Mirror” to himself, I turn down the corner of the hallway towards my room.  There, across from my door, I find the weight lifting guy.  I do not know how long he’s been in here, or where he got the weights from, but for the past two days since my arrival he has been sitting on the tan wood bench next to the telephone lifting weights.  No one uses the telephone, perhaps because they don’t want to ask him to move.  I nod a hello to Weight Lifter, and go inside my room to fetch a book.

Inside the room, the walls are a murky white, and my roommate’s light blue privacy curtain is still wrapped around the space of her bed.  She’s faintly snoring so I know she’s still alive.  Not wanting to disrupt her constant sleep, I grab my novel and head back out into the hallway.  I sit on the floor next to Weight Lifter, and crack open the pages.  Within seconds an orderly swoops into my space and tells me I cannot sit there, because I am a fire hazard.  I look at Weight Lifter and see how he is also blocking the hallway with his weights and his muscles, then stare blankly at the orderly.  His crisp white uniform looks as irritated he does.  I wonder if he saw me on the camera that is hanging up in the corner at the far end of the hallway.  I look at Weight Lifter, then look back at the white uniform, decide not to question if the muscles are also a fire hazard, and move my body to a bench further down the hall.

With my legs up on the bench, and my back smashed against the gray concrete wall, the orderly stares at me and says I can only sit there if no one else wants to.  I wonder at what sort of new-patient orientation this is.  I nod, open the pages back up, and stare at the words until he leaves and goes down the hall.

It’s hard to concentrate when it’s so quiet in the ward yet loud in my body that is already itching to leave.

My arms also itch, holler their irritated screams underneath the bandages that constantly slide down to my wrists.  The nurses here don’t know how to properly tape gauze to arms.  In the emergency room I resisted showing them my tricks of the trade.  They have nursing degrees after all, but my years of experience of having to put bandages over my own cuts have apparently given me the better knowledge.  You have to wrap the tape around the borders of the gauze, circling along the circumference of your arm, then affix small strips of tape vertically to get the horizontal tape to stick.  Why don’t they know these things?  I should teach a class.

The book I have settled into is an interesting story, though I would probably be locked up for even longer if the staff knew what it was about.  In the novel, a woman’s toe grows into a penis, and she lives her life trying to figure out the meanings of her new anatomy and gender identity.  Yesterday, my friend gave me this book to read when she visited me with a tentative smile, and talked with me about nothing in particular, trying to avoid the facts that we were pushing the facade of a casual chat while I had bandages slipping down my arms, that I would not be able to exit with her when our allotted time was up.

I remember the way her and Simon smiled at me when they sat down.  Their smiles looked genuine enough, but also a little forced as if they were trying to reassure themselves that smiling was the right thing to do.  Simon, Jac, and Kate had come to visit me, bringing me real coffee from the Starbucks nearby.  Simon is a trans man, Kate is his girlfriend, and Jac is my co-worker along with Kate at the feminist bookstore we work at.  Without my queer friends around me in the psych ward, though, I am just another patient, and presumably heterosexual.  Actually, we were all seen as asexual, as the psych ward is not the place for sexuality.  But in tromped my bevy of queer friends, and out came my sexual orientation.  I then became not only the cutter on the ward, but the lesbian, too.

This is how our identities slowly start to form in this ward.  Weight Lifter also had someone come to see him during visiting hours.  I assumed it was either his wife or his sister, as he ducked his large mass down to kiss her forehead in the small room that was stuffed with our bodies.  I wondered at why he is in here.

Now, it’s the day after Christmas, and I’m surprised there aren’t more family members visiting.  Maybe the other patients don’t have anyone to come and see them, to tell them that they are real people living in this world, that they will have lives to return to once the emerge from the psych ward.  Perhaps they are all lifers, like the MJ schizophrenic.  He’s harmless, though, as he spends most of his time in his room, harmonizing with the voices he hears in his head.

It’s the weekend here at Illinois Masonic in Chicago, so there are no activities to keep us occupied.  Just the TV room, or the quiet room where the pacer is still zinging around to heavy metal.  I want to quit reading my complicated book and go in there to do yoga, but am afraid to ask him to leave.  I stay quiet, stay staring at the words that swirl around on the pages of this book, and wonder when I will get out.

I am not here to emotionally heal, to make myself better at living in this world.  I simply needed a place to stay to keep me from cutting for a few days, to break the cycle of drinking then taking a razor to my arms.  In a few days, I will smile my best smile, tell the social worker who will finally return from her Christmas Holiday that I am not suicidal, sign a safety contract that is meaningless, and exit out of the doors into the cold Chicago winter.  I know how to act sane, how to say the things they want to hear in order to get me out of here.  Then I can get back to my life of drinking and hurting.  But I wanted a brief break from it, which is why I am here, but I miss the drunken swirl of emotions, miss escaping into my head with whiskey and my journal each night.  I have no intentions of stopping these actions, but am committed to lessen them for a while.  I do not know how to stop, and by my second day in the psych ward I know nothing here will help me to figure out the problems of my life.

With the book creating a dead, blank space in my hands and head, I drift down the hall, looking for something to do.  There is a poster of Sudukopuzzles on the wall, arranged from easiest to hardest.  There are some scribbles of penciled numbers in a few of the blocks, but no one has had enough thought or energy to fill them all out.  I look at the bottom right hand corner of the poster and see that the company who made it labeled the hardest puzzle as “insane.”  I take my laugh at this fact with me further down the hall and head to the arts and crafts room to hopefully consume my time for a little while.  On my way there, I try to rally up some of the TV watchers to come with me, but none of them nudge their bodies towards my direction.  MJ has reemerged from his room, and sings in an absurdly high voice that he wants to join me.  We sashay down the hallway together and enter into the room smelling of crusty paint and dried markers.

Here, I find black and white printouts of intricate designs to color, and MJ finds glitter to glue to construction paper.

After another boring day of drifting from hallway to room while avoiding my practically catatonic roommate, my other queer friend Kat visits me at night with glitter stuck to her chest.  She, too, is a cutter, and thus knows the sort of position in which I have found myself.  Kat has a green mohawk and a genuine smile with thick scars tackling her arms.  She lounges in the gray ratted visitor’s chair, swings her leg over the armrest and settles into telling me about the burlesque show she is on her way to perform at.  She stopped at Illinois Masonic to say hi first, before heading down the street to the bar where she will do a strip tease act to a punk rock song.  Kat and her scars know the psych ward well, and she makes me feel a bit more like myself when she visits.  My queer identity sticks up as outrageously high as her green mohawk when she hugs me goodbye, when the glitter from her chest sticks to my hospital-issued pale blue stiff shirt, and when my fellow inpatients see the scars that have formed on her own arms.  We are a queer bunch.  The weight lifter smiles at me as she skipsaway to the elevator.

After Kat visits me, I stretch my face into a yawn, and throw myself down on my bed next to the snoring, hidden roommate.  I am bored here.  My body is jumping to get out, jonesing for a cigarette, a drink, and I want to go see Kat’s performance.  I decide to pack my bag that night, determined that I will leave in the morning.  And I will.  I will smile that smile, I will sign that form, and I will go home and immediately put a drink in my hand with my new-found freedom.  The psych walls cannot contain me this time, cannot suppress my want to be me.



The Snake and the Shotgun

by Sean-Patrick Burke

I was ten years old when my father killed the snake in the field behind our house.  I say the snake as if it were the only one because in my mind since that day there is only one snake in the world.  Every single limbless reptile I’ve seen since then has been nothing but a ghost or reincarnation of that first slippery terror.

It was a pilot black snake, as I found out later in the blue-bound pages of the World Book Encyclopedia.  It had earned its death by scaring me that day, curling up quickly to protect itself, the rattling of the dead dry leaves under its cool weight a convincing imitation of a much more dangerous creature.  Rattlesnakes are rare but not unknown in Vermont, where I was born and raised and will be buried someday.  I didn’t know much about reptiles or the world around me then, other than the familiar sights and sounds and smells I had explored on my own or as a Boy Scout (Green Mountain Council, Three Rivers District).  I saw and heard and felt the snake (though it remained yards from me) run itself across my sweaty skin.  I envisioned my imminent demise at the stab of its venomless fangs.  In an instant I was flying across the field.

I ran, unceasingly screaming, to where the field was domesticated, mowed into a traditional American lawn.  The ryegrass tips never fully formed, the clover huddled and bloomed and was cut short again.  Everything was mostly even.  In the back acreage, the grass went from being almost waist high for a young boy and as soft as a beautiful girl’s hair, to short, military, inexplicably masculine.

I cried out for my father, who was sharpening the mower blade by hand.  The scraping ring of stone against metal comforted me as I neared the back barn where he was at work.  The sounds made doing this chore I had seen him do countless times before (“A dull blade to grass is as useless as a whip to a tree,” he would say) seemed that day like the sounds of a sword being drawn from a stone scabbard, again and again and again.

My father laid his blade and his stone on the neatly crowded workbench he had made and asked me in his even, low voice to stop my noise and explain myself.  I knew the voice he used on me, his words coming out strong, unsmiling.  It was the same he used in the courtroom to bored jurors and witnesses who parroted the other side of the story that they had been taught by his opposition, and not their own truth.  His truth.  The truth.  I pulled my breath in, felt my chest burn, and told him that I was, just now, the almost victim of either a rattlesnake or python or boa constrictor, and that I had escaped alive through some formulation of speed, agility, dumb luck, and (perhaps) even divine intervention.

As I rattled on and on, taking many times the length of time to live the thing to tell it, my father went to his locked cabinet in the back of the room.  His fingers smoothly spun the dial: thirty-four, sixteen, six.

I still remember.  Goddamn.

The heavy door opened, silent on oiled hinges, and when it closed again my father had his shotgun in his hands.

I shut my mouth.

Aside from the wind trying in vain to push over the old barn (snow would do it in many years later), the only sound I could hear was of plastic and metal rubbing and chiming against each other as my father’s fingers loaded shells, red tubes with heavy copper bottoms, into the chamber.

It closed with a clak.

He looked at me.

“Alright, Frankie.  Let’s take a look.”

I led him to the long dry grasses and the pile of rocks where I had seen the snake.  I had been making a miniature fort that would serve as a base of operations for my army men.  Broken branches from dead trees formed the outer walls of the tiny battlement.  There was a detailed blueprint in my mind that I could never quite match, listing scale depths and widths of moats, outer and inner wall heights, and other features any real commander wouldn’t give two shits about.  This fortress was to have been occupied and defended against repeated attacks until dinnertime, at which point I would have abandoned the fort and my men, trusting that an animal wouldn’t urinate over the whole scene or walk off with a soldier in its mouth, leaving it for me to play with another day.  Dinner that night was hot dogs in potato rolls, cold macaroni salad, and iced tea: adequate post-bloodshed grub, I figured, the voice in my head that of George C. Scott in the role of George S. Patton, hard as a pearl-handled revolver and twice as deadly.

Instead of a long stretch of imitation warfare, followed by a plate of half-hot and half-cold, I found myself watching a different assault playing out before me.  This is how it is often in life.

My father saw the snake and motioned for me to move back behind him.  I did.  He took aim, squinted, tensed for the blowback from the dirt and rocks he was going to lay into, and fired.  He hadn’t ever bothered with the safety.

The shotgun let out a single spray of buckshot into my fort’s foundation, laying it to waste, as effective as an atom bomb.  The shock was great to me, gigantic.  The instant after the flash and bang I pressed my hands to my ears and squeezed my eyes as tight as they could go.  My eyes felt tight to the point where I thought the eyelids themselves were concealed, the space between my dark half-moons (from the nights where I stayed up late reading comic books and listening to the radio) and my eyebrows meeting in a single strange wrinkle of skin.  The dark that came too late behind my eyelids was pushed back by the persistent candle-flame that the shot had marked on my vision.  I screamed into the ringing and I sounded distant to myself, like someone else far away.


My family died on the last beautiful fall day Vermont had to offer, years after the snake and the shotgun.  From what the county coroner could ascertain, my father died as a result of his skull smashing against the steering wheel of his beloved 1958 Cadillac Fleetwood Special.  The thing caved his head in as good as a blackjack.  He loved the car, his shining relic on the road, always covering it in the garage with a soft cloth.  It smelled like polish and leather and gasoline that, however strange this may seem, smelled sweet, not dirty, like what comes out of the back of my Mazda.  On the Fleetwood, it was the car’s cologne.

My mother, the former Nancy McGrath, had been in the backseat.  The forces of impact (as a car crash is not a perfect, linear, point A to point B event) ruptured most of her vital organs, in addition to snapping her neck in three places.  Her spinal column was turned into a distorted memory of its previous precision.

In the front seat was my sister, Karen.  Kitty was a good girl.

After the shockwave subsided, I opened my eyes to my father’s disappointment, seeing him through a blur of tears.

“Frankie, come on.”

He turned his attention to the shotgun, pointing it at the ground, picking up the shells he had ejected.  After that task was done he looked at me again.  I was still crying, but silent now, shivering in the light wind, the hot air that smelled like sulphur and cordite.

“Don’t cry.  You’ve got to stop.”

I nodded, my head light on my skinny neck.  The air picked up a bit, felt good moving through my hair, like when my mother would brush it when I was even younger than I was then, looking down now at the snake.

“You have nothing to cry about.”

I stared at the ragged rubber cable that had been the snake laying on the ground.  My father’s boots were crunching now: he was looking for any others, I suppose.  The snake was in pieces, and some of the pieces moved with the last energy they would ever contain, but most of the parts were still.

From the house then I could hear my little sister, months before kindergarten, laughing in the distance at something.  My mother was yelling from the back porch to my father, wanting to know what in the hell he was doing, and I heard my father take in a breath, rattling from years of Luckies, ready to yell back to her that he had just shot a snake, just a snake, when my eyes rolled up to the crisp blue eye blue sky and I hit the ground, left shoulder first, my hands too dumb to reach out and catch myself, and my father would have but he was too far away, my head bouncing off a rock, the pain and the cottoneareddeafness what I would recall and feel again after getting out of the shower in my Boston apartment years later to answer the phone, dragging the shower curtain back and leaving the water running, and hearing the constable tell me, while I stared at the shower curtain like a hung skin, tattooed red with mildew, both times experiencing the tinniest¹ of hope that, in my unconscious state, my eyes would dry and stay that way, that I would be absolved of my sins, real, imagined, or perceived by others, and that when the next morning came over the mountains or the harbor it would be like any other day, and all would be anew.

¹ Note: not a typo.  Using the definition “cheap, badly made, or shoddy.”



“1Q84” by Haruki Murikami

by Joshua Willey

944 pages.  Knopf, 2011.

One of the reasons Haruki Murakami is so popular is his uncanny ability to imbue the mundane and often isolating details of modern life with a metaphysical charge.  In his new novel, the longest of his career, he indulges more than ever in lengthy descriptions of food preparation, music listening habits, choice in clothing.  His characters are usually committed to rigid systems of order within their little worlds, and their ability to maintain discipline in their facile regimes grants them a confidence that bestows some grace on their lives.  In a sense Murakami is kind of like an idiot savant.  By focusing on the material fabric of everyday life, exercise and food and so forth, he has ensured that people all over the world would find a lot in his narratives to relate to.  A typical Murakami moment is some middle class lady coming home from her job, doing some calisthenics, taking a shower, putting on a jazz record while making dinner, then after eating going for a walk and maybe stopping to have a nightcap before bed.  So why would people want to read about what seems like nearly the archetypal modern urban existence?  Because embedded within it, omnipresent behind the veneer of normality, is science fiction, happenings of great social and philosophical importance, and life itself is often at stake.

In 1Q84, which is a parallel reality to 1984, the year in which the novel is set (and yes, the specter of Orwell looms intentionally large), is a logical next step to his last big novel, Kafka on the Shore in 2002, and even the numinous neon spaces of the vignettes in 2004’s After Dark could read kind of like a prelude to the big work.  At the center of the narrative is a cult (familiar territory for Murakami after his Underground, a journalistic look at the Aum terrorist attacks in Tokyo in 1995), and the very impulse that belays cult faith is one of his key existential concerns.  Cult members, like novelists, like the legions of individuals suffering quiet, or sometimes unquiet desperation, long for a better life in a better world.  The problems of the present world are too obvious to spend much time on; what Murakami is interested in are the myriad ways people try to reach beyond.  Sometimes, otherworldly forces are so great that they reach into a subject’s life and pull them out against their will.  Thus, it is not only inhabitants of this world that pine for another, but also the other worlds themselves that crave manifestation.

Typical of science fiction, magical realism, utopianism in general, the reach for a better world can often catalyze the realization of something much worse, and 1Q84 is rife with violence, fear, and darkness.  But for all his flights of fancy, Murakami returns to concrete lessons about how our fantasies of other worlds can change the course of this one, for better or worse.  He epitomizes this dynamic as an author, as he is battered around by the momentum of his own narrative, always on the verge of losing control.  His intuitive mash-ups of high and low culture reinforce his position as one of the preeminent voices of the flat world, but 1Q84, more than any of his works thus far, seems reflexive in its hesitation about its own value.  Murakami (along with much of the literary industry, notably Jeffrey Eugenides in his new novel The Marriage Plot) seems to question whether or not the age of the novel has come to a close.  Of all the metaphors Murakami floats over nearly a thousand pages, the novel as a crucial form for re-imagining reality is perhaps the strongest.  What’s most impressive is how, out of such a magnitude of alienation and dystopianism, Murakami’s characters still find ample reason to believe.



Temporary in a Skin Suit

by Graham Todd

In a wonderful world where grass sprouts and divided cells sing the words of the Elevator Blues, which unofficially goes “Give a little piece of the pie, we would all love to be refined,” Aaron Veedon was popped out and turkey basted to breathing.  His heart, the four-chambered rhythm machine already formed and months old, fluttered to a start without any maternal guidance.  Every time his mother ate, sang, laughed, played records, got into a scented bath, or was touched gently on the back of her neck or along the skin that ran from her armpit to her hip her heart would flutter to start and Aaron Veedon’s heart would flutter to start and frankly Aaron Veedon had just about had it with all that bullshit.  He was out now and god of his heart, fellow traveler and disciple of it, too.

Aaron had a normal head (mushy and pointed) and had all the regular baby aesthetics going for him, at least for the first few minutes.  Aaron was hosed off, but as the yellowing globs of afterbirth slumped onto the sterile tile so did Aaron’s first few layers of mauve skin, sadly and with a plop.  AaronVeedon’s skin shined as onion paper does in its dull glossy way.  From the brim of his felty head to his mouse’s toes there shown all the inner things that skin very often covers.  Aaron Veedon was red, blue, and green and he never cried out.  Instead he lay still, grabbing at his toes, clutching, and rocking himself to a smile when he became restless.  His heart, that four-chambered rhythm machine, pounded its thin sea grass tresses.  The attending nurse didn’t quite scream, but rather sighed some breathy words and brought Aaron and his sheath into the Veedon’s room some minutes later at the side of the doctor.

“Have you been sleeping on your side, Mrs. Veedon?” the doctor asked, fingering his nametag the way young doctors do.

“Is something wrong?” the drugged up, round faced woman lulled, “I roll in my sleep sometimes, yes.”

 “He’s got about 48 minutes left to live, I’d say.”  The doctor tugged up his white coat’s sleeve and checked.  “Yeah.  Who’s your Lamaze guru?” he said, turning to the nurse who was holding Aaron’s sheath, “We might have an epidemic.”  Aaron was the fifth that day and so he paused, running a horrible checklist, with his back to the new mother.  They both wasted a minute in a silence of breathy crescendo.

The Veedons had already named Aaron Aaron and so the couple moved on, cutting orange slices and molding Mr. Veedon’s left-over parmesan chicken tin foil swan into a soccer ball.  Aaron made friends and quickly, too.  He soared in protective footy pajamas in outstretched arms and greeted the lines of incubating infants, like all good people, without a movement of mouth or hand or arm, but rather with a noticeable movement of his insides.  Nurses performed Shakespeare and Mrs. Veedon read Rilke.  Albums were played, beginning with a Little Mermaid cassette and brimming over afterward and all together with David Bowie, “Moonlight Sonata,” and all the other smatterings of human culture the hospital occupants and staff could muster.  However, Louis, an occasional patient and very often binary subject for all those who met him, played too much cool jazz and was lead back to his room.  That was the pit, according to Mrs. Veedon, and Aaron needed the fruit.

They had Aaron sit in on AA meetings and then watch the Pam Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape.  Someone sat him down in front of a television and flipped through the channels in 2-3 second intervals twice over.  He was given a world history lesson with all of the highly touted civilizations, modern and ancient, summed up into easily digestible sentences.   He hit all the major world cities, which were set up in different rooms of the Intensive Care Unit on the second floor.  Everything went smoothly until the few people setting up the Bratislava room got in a fight over the ethnic content.  The firework smoke coming from the Asian rooms exasperated the Bratislavans even more and when they emerged as a cohesive nation unit into the hallway a rumble ensued between Far East and Eastern West.  To fill the lost time Aaron was sent to and visited an NA meeting, a philosophical discussion concerning Plato’s Symposium, the chapel, and finally, as if the hive had not been perused and succumbed to enough, a Hare Krishna dance show.  Through it all, and especially at the end, Aaron was visibly shaken by all the information and was let alone for a while to “stew” as one self-consciously handsome male nurse put it, though everyone’s hushed looks woke him to his poor choice of language quickly, and he felt disgusted at his literality long after Aaron’s person went from long cooked to white to nothing.

Aaron sat stagnant and just watched the ceiling as the hospital crowd built up and quibbled outside his window in the hall.  Eventually, he was terrified by the vastness of possibility and the littleness of time and his poem to capture it, growing in length without end, sustained by an otherworldly and hard-lined wonderment, was lost to him as he lamented the death of great men in history, who, wondering like him, had left an unspeakable future full ahead in unbattened sails like illsome bellies, like him.  It all cinched in him and advisors came – endless wraiths entered his room where he believed himself to be experiencing loneliness; friends made, technicians, the nurse who had pulled him from his mother by the leg, the turkey baster was held forth at the threshold by a vacant arm, theologians who believed in history, theologians who believed in magic, and all who entered spoke lovely and courageous untruths.

They played happy music for Aaron and he cried.  They blew trumpet noises through pieces of grass and Aaron turned his silent face towards them and, void of anything he believed he once had, thought only a few rambling, cyclical thoughts: How he’d lost his poem, his blind loving touch.  How he couldn’t bring himself to look Jacky, his love interest who he’d met and traveled through half of the ICU’s Europe with, in the eye.  How he possibly had been before and always would be condemned to a certain infantile nothingness.

Aaron drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and, in a few words, had an artistic breakdown.  Unmanned balloons and several latex gloves poured in with all of the restless opposites, like black and white, painted on with lipstick and every legible substance in the adjacent wing, which was unbounded even as a contained arena.  Unreliable, they flickered when Aaron reached a cracked arm for them in their state, the underside of a cloud whose encyclocoloration and teat architecture called to Aaron with such a song that engagement through the five senses became unconquerable and Aaron, with no further powers, turned to porcelain, his tiny baby mouth suffocating, his exposed liquids drying to residuum.

Mrs. Veedon squeezed her temples with the tips of her fingers, ESP-ing her way into Aaron’s troubles.  She took Aaron’s hands into hers and became a maypole with Aaron’s once damp footy pajama feet sipping the jet streams around the room.  The final minutes flitted away and they spun, moving about the tan equipment in a dervish whirl.   In the outward orthogonal pull of the centrifuge Aaron reanimated from tip-to-tip until it caught his middle.  And through red-lit, vein tinged eyes the Veedons, mother and son, realized the slats of the window were not quiet.  The gentle, constant pressing of light is what they saw.  A light that hadn’t stopped for any of the things that Aaron, the doctors, Louis, the Veedons, or Jacky had ever seen or would see.  A vaulted light that would never stop. Purple faced and hardly breathing Mrs. Veedon ran through automatic sliding doors and the halls of the hospital with Aaron in her arms and finally they emerged in the outside world.

There the moonlight was visible in wafts of acrid smoke and the bare breasts of the nurses hung down off their bent bodies.  A twelve-bar stomping of feet began and the naked parade surrounded a shallow, circular ditch.  Running in time, the women circumambulated the ditch and individual members of the procession goose stepped away from its focus with their mad hands clutching at the air above their heads.  Aaron was taken from Mrs. Veedon and disrobed.  The heels of his trowel-shaped feet curled to his toes.  In the ditch where Aaron’s small body collapsed into itself the nurses piled boughs of sappy pine with brown needles, which caught fire and hovered in the heat as ashen curls.

The young doctor, bare except his white coat, slowly approached Mrs. Veedon who remained on her feet at the hospital door, staring on.  “I hope you know this is procedure,” he said with the words catching on the smoke-roughed pink of his throat.  “Incineration is our only option with a case like this.  It could have spread through physical contact or even psychological avenues if it had developed to a certain stage.”

“I thought you said it was due to sleeping on my side,” she whispered through seamed lips.

“I did, but that was a guess.  We don’t know the cause, yet.”  He noticed her becoming upset.  “It’s hard to reconcile the loss of someone so young, but I think the Hindus have it right when they think…”

Mrs. Veedon, finally regaining herself, told him to shut up and then began to moan and to sob and then she screamed: “If there were options, a choice to be made, then we should have been informed.”



Keeping it Real

by Joshua Willey

“The Actuality Dramas of Allan King”

Criterion Collection: Eclipse Series 24

Allan King is a profoundly underrated filmmaker.  Not only did he create a body of work that is as compelling now, in terms of both content and form, as it was some forty years ago, but he anticipated the cultural need for reality decades before MTV’s Real World.  Criterion recently sought to bring the Canadian auteur a fresh wave of due attention by releasing his self-styled “Actuality Dramas” in their Eclipse Series 24.  The passage of time, Criterion’s knack for re-mastering and packaging, and engaging the pieces as elements in a larger cohesive project all cement King’s status as a master, equally comfortable with the mechanics of motion pictures as with the preeminent philosophical questions of modernity.  “The Actuality Dramas” are documentaries.  King spent time with his subjects, got them used to the presence of a bare bones film crew, took a bunch of footage over a period of months, edited it, and released a film.  His stated goal was to minimize the camera’s presence.  From the purely structural perspective, his footage contains the sort of candid, organic grace championed by directors such as Werner Herzog and Andrei Sokurov.  He often shoots from the shoulder, following the subjects around, and is not afraid of lingering on a shot after the supposed action is over, thus exposing that peculiar truth which, in cinéma vérité, tends to hide out on the edges.

Warrendale was shot in 1967.  One of its most poignant moments is a telephone conversation of one of the staff at the home for troubled children after which the film is named.  The man questions the presence of King’s film crew, and concludes that it can only do good, ultimately, as the director strives only to tell the story of what is going on there, and has no specific agenda of his own.  Of course it is impossible to have no agenda, every decision King makes, during film or in the editing process, tailors our vision of the subject, but that does not invalidate King’s effort to achieve realism, it even heightens it, as we are aware that what he wants to do is structurally somewhat impossible.  The telephone conversation is a rare moment of reflexivity in the Actuality Dramas, with the director mentioned by name.  It is an excellent film to start with, the young filmmaker working with young people.  The intensity of King’s style is instantly captivating and leaves the viewer rattled and wanting more.

A Married Couple was created in 1969.  The man and woman in the frame are trying desperately to be a family, to be in love.  The question presenting itself centrally from the beginning is whether or not they are.  Is love something that you can foster with the proper structural elements, with analysis?  Or do forces beyond control determine it.  There are arguments, in the film, for both perspectives.  At times, the success or failure of the relationship seems to hinge upon concerted effort, as though, to employ the cliché, it were a garden, needing the proper watering and weeding to flourish.  But at other times, irrational forces come along and completely decimate the best-laid plans.  Again, the tired garden metaphor is useful.  No matter how much you slave away at your tomatoes, an early frost can erase weeks of work in the space of few dark hours.  As you might expect, when the truth arrives it’s not in the form of an either/or but a dialectic, and the outcome is neither entirely victory or defeat, in fact the categories as such don’t even really exist, one is always entwined with the other.  King’s great accomplishment is capturing the dramatic arc of this push/pull, of these polarities, and in the tragicomic sweep of it all lays redemption.  Relationships are narratives the meanings of which aren’t clear, what is clear is the power of narrative itself.  Even if you get divorced, that was your story, you made it, it was your life, you lived it, and not alone; it was, like a child, a collaboration.  This is perhaps King’s most intimate film, close quarters, few characters.  Whatever magic he works on his subjects that summon such confessional, un-candid behavior in front of the camera, he’s worked it here with a deftness which, like the logic of marriage, is incomprehensible, and that very incomprehensibility is precisely what makes it so compelling.

Come On Children is from 1972.  This is King’s most accessible, most romantic, and most popular piece, and for good reason: it strikes at questions close to the heart of the post-war occidental master-narrative.  Children of the Summer of Love, all longing for a place where everyone can just be groovy, a kind of Big Rock Candy Mountain, a Haight-Ashbury without landlords and cops, manifesting a utopian urge which goes back as far as language itself.  King’s idea is simply brilliant: he gives them the space. He rents an Ontario farm, gives them a food budget, rounds up some hippy kids, and grants them their shot at utopia.  As you might expect, things don’t go quite as planned.  Everyone’s groovy at the start, but communities are complicated, and structure is always present regardless of whether you recognize it.  People’s pettiness comes out, their selfishness.  But on the other hand, there is transcendence, and grace.  King seems to know what’s going to happen all along, and his camera is equally ready to capture spontaneous musical happenings and ruminations on the meaning of existence as it is to capture arguments about who, if anyone, is going to do the dishes.  This film stands out from the others in that it focuses more intently on the subjects’ sometimes antagonistic relationship with the camera.  King is so adept at conjuring a spirit of neutrality in his approach that we might forget we are watching a film.  Here we are offered uncanny reminders.  A man is upset and exacerbated by the camera’s presence.  He commands it away, and King holds.  He covers the lens with his hand, and King holds.  Finally, he just sits there, static, his hair in his face, and still, King holds.  This is the secret magic of cinema Werner Herzog speaks of.  There are many ways to pursue it; King succeeds simply by virtue of patience, focus, and whole lot of film.

Dying At Grace came out in 2003.  Sometimes the hardest films to sit through can be the most rewarding.  Such is the case with this study of hospice patients in Toronto.  Where are people at, existentially speaking, at the end?  And how can we relate to them, what do they need from us, and what do we need from them?  There is the physical side, the pain and deterioration, and the subsequent confusion, but more important there is the spiritual side, which manifests itself in the patients’ conversations with their caregivers.  Made some thirty years after Come on Children, King’s specific interest in illness makes perfect sense, as the ill are forced to confront (or else find a way to escape) the deeper questions that the healthy can put off.  Annie Dillard said that you should always write for a reader who is going to die the next day.  It’s this urgency that makes this King’s most powerful film.  This is his King Lear.  What we find, more than anything, is chaos.  There is no moment of great clarity, no rectifying montage that explains away the contradictions of a life.  You’ve got to hand it to King for remaining as unsentimental as he does; he has ample opportunity, not to mention myriad cultural examples, to rarify death in some way.  If anything, it is the telling of their story (or the end of it), which seems to provide some comfort to the dying.  And yet, there is, in a microscopic sense, a certain elemental solace.  The absolute basics: sunshine, looking another human in the eye, being able to eat and breathe and shit and sleep in comfort, these are, at the end of the day, the important things.  It’s an aesthetic sort of redemption, just the type one would expect from cinema.

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company was made in 2005.  Memory is integrally related to identity; indeed, the latter cannot exist without the former.  Thus, this final installment in the series is of the highest stakes, in that it engages not the death of the body, but the death, or at least transformation, of the soul.  Alzheimer’s is in a way a far scarier ailment than cancer.  Losing life, feeling it slide away from you, is no doubt unsettling, but it is comprehendible in a way in which slowly losing yourself is not.  These characters are still very much alive, but they are different people from one day to the next.  It is a fitting conclusion to the series, nearly four decades after WarrendaleMemory is a profound demonstration of the lasting import of King’s concerns.  So many documentaries, even more reality television, are entertaining or perhaps connected to contemporary issues and thus only of critical interest for a short time.  But from the outset, the Actuality Dramas point only at the deepest human questions, thus their long-term relevance is assured.

Throughout the series, a parallel emerges between the act of making documentaries and questions of naturalness and form and the institutions (marriage, medicine, commune, etc.), which seek to shelter or correct deviations for normality in society.  One is reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s famous theories of the deeper sanity of those marginalized by society.  Taken as a whole, the drama’s shockingly consistent revelations about the truths of youth and age, beg of us more than anything to be open.  King’s camera always lingers, waiting to capture what will happen next, and eventually we discover that it is not the specifics of the next plot point that really matters, it is the waiting itself.



The Flock

by Thomas Brown

The boys flock screeching to the locker room, their faces red and wild from the cold.  One runs, arms outstretched, as though attempting to take-off.  Another rushes, flapping, to his locker.  A third hops onto the benches at the centre of the room and, his head thrown back, croons loudly.  His throat swells, victorious; his was the winning football team.

One boy follows afterwards, calmly and more quietly than the rest.  He does not screech or flap his arms, and if his face is red or wild from the cold, it is because it is his face, and helpless to be otherwise.  He cannot change his face, although he has wished for this many times before.

The room fills with the flutter of sleeve arms as the boys begin to get changed.  Socks grow long where they are pulled from the toes; longer, longer still, until they tear from ankles and snap like synthetic sinew through the air.  It is early afternoon and the autumn wind is playing with the tree outside the window.  Red leaves press like outstretched hands against the opaque glass.

The same boy pauses, his sweatshirt around his shoulders, and studies the scarlet palm-prints.  Their redness reminds him of other things: burst berries, flushed cheeks, the colour of split lips and the stains down the arms of his school shirt.  He wonders how a colour can be so many things, how it can mean so many things, and still be beautiful.  It is just a colour, after all, the same wherever it is seen.

He stares intently for several seconds, the world around him fading beneath the bright red of the leaves.  Then he loses himself once more in his sweatshirt.  The name label, which tickles his neck and then his face, reads Bran Thomas.  The room smells damp and feels cold against his goose-pimpled skin.

Around him, the others prance and preen.  Sometimes their faces are expressive, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.  Other times, it seems, they barely have faces at all.  One is studying himself in the mirror above the sink, moving left, then right, his reflection doing likewise in the glass.  From where Bran stands there is no nose, no mouth, no face that can be seen, but he imagines a sharp beak and two unblinking eyes in their place.  He knows that beak.  He has felt it before, or one like it, and the ceaseless peck of its words.

Shouts ricochet from the locker room walls.  When they reach the communal showers they distort, in that way all sounds do when they bounce from bathroom tiles.  Bran hears jubilation in those sounds, and taunts, and mimicry; so much mimicry.  It is cacophonous in his head.  He wishes that worms turned in the ground beneath them, or that the pink throats of their parents hovered above, come to regurgitate food into their mouths, silencing those hungry beaks for one solitary minute!

The shrieks escalate, grow shrill.  He steps back to his locker, which is already open, and shields himself behind the metal door as the boys fly into a flurry of movement.  His little heart rattles, like a cage of frightened lovebirds in his chest.  He fears for his sanity in the midst of such madness.  He fears he is the mad one, the outsider of the flock.

He thinks of lovebirds, and wonders why they are called such.  Do they love?  Are they more than birds because of it, or indifferent except in name?  What of scaredbirds too, and deadbirds, and whatdoesitallmeanbirds?

One of the boys falls into his locker, so that the door swings into Bran’s face.  It is a senseless gesture, accident or otherwise, and Bran feels reaffirmed.  He feels pain too, where the door has struck his nose.  He sinks to the floor.  The rich metal-taste of red fills his mouth.

The tiles are cold beneath his feet.  Blackness encroaches on his vision, then whiteness, growing from the strip bulbs above.  The bird-boys circle overhead, beaks clacking, and he hears malice.  He hears stupidity and joy and inconsideration.  If there is an apology, he cannot hear that.  He does not think there is.

Bran’s toes scrunch slowly, over and over, feeling the mud that has been trawled in from the playing fields.  With conscious effort he takes a long breath.  The fluttering in his chest begins to slow.  The grit between his toes is grounding.  It is a moment, the moment, in which he realises he is not like the other bird-boys.  They hop and screech and peck for giblets, their beaks black, like the crows in the ditch behind the football field.  They are a faceless flock, drawn to shiny things, or thrashing insects in the ground.  Their bones are light.  Their forms slight.

Bran’s chest is heavy with petrified lovebirds.  They sit like stones behind his ribs and he knows he will never fly.  He will never be as the other bird-boys: the crows, the magpies, the voracious playground vultures.

They swarm from the locker room, these other boys, the corridor ringing with their shrieks and the beating of their feathered arms.  Bran is left alone, with the grit between his toes, the slap of scarlet at the window and the taste of the colour in his mouth.